February 2022 Update and 2021 Retrospective

2021 was quite a year, and 2022 is starting off in a dizzying way as well!


For those who encounter this post out of context, I should say that I find it helpful to post updates a few times per year to publicize some of my academic work and keep track of time. I can’t even begin to summarize all that’s happened over the past year, so I’ll try something partial that may give a sense for where my research has been and where it is going next.

In May 2021 I defended my dissertation and completed my PHD in the Religious Studies Department at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. I was fortunate to have a generous committee who gave me an ‘excellent’ rating after my defense and passed my dissertation without mandatory revisions. My supervisor Travis Kroeker, and readers Morny Joy, Dana Hollander, and Dawne McCance were very engaged during my defense and provided me with helpful feedback. I’m excited to say that I’m currently working on revising Ontologies of Violence for a new Brill series called Political and Public Theologies.

Just a day before my defense, a project that I had been working on during the pandemic came to fruition with the publication of a guest-edited special issue of the journal Political Theology. The issue explores new interdisciplinary approaches to Mennonite Political Theology, and includes contributions from secular, feminist, confessional, and historical Mennonite contributors. If you’re interested the introduction can be found here.

In late 2021 another project that I had been developing during my PHD was published as well. I am very pleased to say that last November my book Postsecular History was published by Palgrave Macmillan (Springer Nature) in an all-too-expensive hardback edition with an amazing cover. The book collects several of my essays and explores how secularity and religion are entangled in ways that challenge the concept of the ‘postsecular’ (and other ‘post’ designations).

Apart from a few typos, I couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out, and I am very excited to share this interview with the editor of Anabaptist Historians that introduces the themes of the book.

I am also looking forward to the upcoming book launch hosted by the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre. The launch will be moderated by TMTC’s Kyle Gingerich Hiebert, with contributions from my dissertation supervisor Travis Kroeker (McMaster University, Religious Studies Department), my postdoctoral supervisor Pamela Klassen (University of Toronto, Department for the Study of Religion), and my colleagues Jennifer Otto (University of Lethbridge, Religious Studies Department) and Michael Driedger (Brock University, History Department).

This past year also gave me the chance to teach courses at McMaster University and the University of Waterloo, which left me feeling quite fulfilled as I walked students through the complexities of the academic discipline of Religious Studies (at McMaster) and the relationship between religion and conspiracy theories (at Waterloo).

I am keenly aware that after a PHD in the social sciences or humanities many of my peers have been left without work in their field, which makes me all the more grateful to everyone who helped me successfully apply for a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto, where I’m currently working on a book project on religion and conspiracy theories called Critique of Conspiracism, supervised by Dr. Pamela Klassen. If you’re curious about the conspiracy project I recently did an interview with a friend that may be helpful, and I have posted the text of my AAR presentation here.

This year also saw another unbelievable windfall as I took over as director of a small Mennonite publishing company called Pandora Press. It’s a dream come true to be able to work with authors and make some incredible books that will be published in mid-2022, so keep an eye out for books on the history of Mennonites in Quebec, Mennonite-Catholic dialogue, Community Peacemaker Teams in Europe, a study of the Dutch Anabaptist Hans de Ries, and a philosophical novel called Menno in Athens.

In the coming year I also have some exciting new pieces of writing coming out, including a book chapter that consolidates my Mennonite work in this volume, an article on technology and Mennonite ethics in a special issue of the Conrad Grebel Review, and a longer study of Grace Jantzen’s late trilogy in Angelaki. I am also excited to be responding to Maria José de Abreu’s The Charismatic Gymnasium at this event, at the invitation of Valentina Napolitano.

Looking ahead, in the coming weeks and months I will be working on my response to the book launch, a lecture for the UWO Theory Centre on the ‘Metaphysics of the Book,’ a colloquium presentation for the DSR, and a larger public lecture at 11:00 AM on April 27th, as part of this lecture series:

My contribution to the lecture series will be titled “Anabaptism contra Philosophy: On Violence, Enmity, and Interdisciplinarity.” My draft abstract is below for those who are interested (and it is subject to change as I develop the lecture).

What hath Menno to do with Athens, and what hath the Radical Reformation to do with the philosophical Enlightenment? In his forthcoming novel Menno in Athens, Ron Tiessen narrates the travels of a young Mennonite on the islands of Greece and stages what may be the first sustained literary-philosophical encounter between Mennonite and Greek thought. In a key moment, the narrator asks his father, “if you have the proclamation of a truth in one case that is considered divine revelation, and the same proclamation is found in another culture, must we assume that one is divinely inspired and the other not?” The questions Tiessen raises are at the heart of this roundtable series where we place Anabaptism in dialogue with the traditions of western philosophy. How are we to treat the resonances and oppositions between Anabaptist Mennonite identities and philosophers?


In this presentation I argue that the way forward for this dialogue is to fully dignify the similarities and differences between its two ‘sides’ without the comforts of syncretistic unity or the paralyses of irreducible difference. To do this, I will articulate a ‘secular Mennonite social critique’ that uses the critique of redemptive violence to deconstruct rigid oppositions between religion and secularity, theology and philosophy, and ‘the church’ and ‘the world.’ Beginning from the assumption that these terms do not name stable phenomena, but instead are conceptual tools that are used and abused for diverse purposes, this presentation critiques the imposition of enmity and competition onto the names and concepts we use to make sense of this discourse and this world. The wager of this lecture is that if the Anabaptist Mennonite community is truly committed to the critique of violence and pursuit of peace, then a critical reconceptualization of interdisciplinarity is essential, lest we allow suspicion, fear, and reactivity to define the terms of our encounters with others and ourselves.

This presentation develops my previous work in the second chapter of my dissertation, my 2017 article on the topic (PDF), and my encyclopedia entry on Mennonites and philosophy.

Beyond that, I am excited to develop my work on violence, religion, and conspiratorial thinking in new directions by exploring themes from trauma studies, indigenous data sovereignty, and the ‘quantification of the social‘ in theoretical ways that critique methodological forms of violence, and in concrete ways that could have ramifications for public health and other forms of care work.

Until next time,

Violence, Religion, and Conspiratorial Thinking (AAR 2021)

Violence, Religion, and Conspiratorial Thinking

Presentation for the Religion and Popular Culture Unit at the American Academy of Religion meetings held online and in San Antonio, Texas on Monday, November 22nd 2021.

In his preface to the Brill Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion, Michael Barkun writes that,

If we look at the most sweeping conspiracy theories, they insist that nothing happens by accident; nothing is as it seems; and that everything is connected. Yet these salient characteristics are strikingly similar to the features of many religious belief systems. To be sure, this is not to say that religions are conspiracy theories, only that there are structural similarities that sometimes lead them to join hands.[1]

But I fear that in our current social and political environment, only a few years after these words were published, Barkun’s claim seems very understated. Connections between religions and conspiracy theories are much stronger than is accurately communicated by the image of joined hands, not only because many American Christian evangelicals have fully embraced QAnon conspiracy theories, but also because the underlying vision of these three claims – “nothing happens by accident; nothing is as it seems; everything is connected” – is very religious.

Continue reading “Violence, Religion, and Conspiratorial Thinking (AAR 2021)”

Postsecular History Book Launch Symposium (March 2022)

I am excited to say that in March 2022 the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre will host an online launch symposium on my book Postsecular History.

The launch will begin with an introduction to the book by Kyle Gingerich Hiebert, followed by responses from my dissertation supervisor Travis Kroeker (McMaster University, Religious Studies Department), my postdoctoral supervisor Pamela Klassen (University of Toronto, Department for the Study of Religion), and my colleagues Jennifer Otto (University of Lethbridge, Religious Studies Department) and Michael Driedger (Brock University, History Department).

Review of Friedmann, Design for Living (2017/2021)

The manuscript by Mennonite historian Robert Friedmann that I produced an edition of has recently been reviewed in the Conrad Grebel Review by Astrid von Schlachta – a scholar of the Hutterites who is a lecturer at the University of Regensburg and directs the Mennonite Research Center in Weierhof, Germany.

She writes,

In the end, Friedmann calls for seeking a mature life that is concerned with learning “the art of meaningful living and the art of making responsible decision[s].” His quest, as outlined in this book, aims at a holistic education of the human being and the education of the heart, in a long process of searching in which the person is not satisfied with stereotypical answers and rote knowledge. Knowledge must be put into practice. This path excludes empty generalizations and calls upon us to be mature, free, and personally responsible, yet always in contact with God and oriented towards the community.

Conrad Grebel Review 38.3 (Fall 2020): 273-276.
See here for publication details!

“Violence, Religion, and Conspiratorial Thinking” (AAR 2021)

I’m excited to begin my SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship this Fall in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. I give some initial details about the project here, and I will be presenting some of my work at the American Academy of Religion meetings in San Antonio this November.

The presentation is called “Violence, Religion, and Conspiratorial Thinking,” and it is part of a panel on “Cancel Culture, Climate Denial, and Conspiracy Thinking” in the Religion and Popular Culture unit.

Abstract:

Conspiratorial thinking has recently become a prominent matter of public and popular concern, taking root in different but important ways during the COVID-19 pandemic and the violent end of the Trump presidency. However, scholars of religion and violence will recognize conspiratorial thinking as a constituent part of long-standing prejudices, from antisemitism and racism to scapegoating and social conflict. This presentation examines continuities and discontinuities between conspiracism and violence, suggesting that the patterns of thinking and uses of the past that structure conspiratorial thinking can lend themselves to violences ranging from physical and political violations to structural violence and social prejudice. This presentation will also highlight some limitations of major works on conspiracy theories and address the problematic lack of attention to religion in the discourse on conspiracism.

June 2021 Update

I am pleased to say that my dissertation and PHD are now complete, and for those who are interested, the dissertation can be accessed here – although I am already becoming more aware of its limits as I revise it.

I am currently finishing the final grades for the introductory course “What on Earth is Religion?” that I’ve taught for two Spring terms at McMaster, and I am looking ahead to the Fall and thinking about how to deliver a University of Waterloo Arts First course called “Religion and Conspiracy Theories.”

This Fall will bring a new stage in my research where I hope to bring the work I have done on violence (in my dissertation) and history (in my book) to a more present and pressing social problem. I am very excited to be presenting on my postdoctoral project, “Critique of Conspiracism,” at the AAR in San Antonio this November, and I hope to gather some helpful resources in the meantime as I read through the Brill Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion and the work of Michael Butter. In the conspiracism project I hope to turn my theoretical work on concepts like “violence” and the “postsecular” toward a critical analysis of social narratives that make meaning through political, theological, secular, and religious ways.

In the meantime, I’m excited that several other pieces of my writing will appear in Hamilton Arts and Letters, Implicit Religion, and a volume on the Anabaptist tradition and the arts.